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OFF KEY WEST, Florida (Reuters) - Shrouded by smoke from detonated explosives, a former World War Two U.S. troop ship was sunk off the Florida Keys on Wednesday to become a massive artificial reef that authorities hope can revive the local economy and environment.
After the controlled explosive charges were set off, it took only three minutes for the rust-streaked 523-foot (159 meter), 17,000-ton gray bulk of the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg to slip below the surface.
It sank 140 feet to settle on the sandy bottom, seven miles off Key West on the southern tip of Florida.
The sinking turned the wartime relic, which also was used by the U.S. Air Force to track Soviet missile launches during the Cold War and still carried its big tracking dish, into one of the world's biggest intentionally sunk artificial reefs.
Local officials and businessmen are hoping that in its new resting place the Vandenberg will provide a boon to both the marine environment and the local economy, which has felt the squeeze of the global economic recession.
They expected the wreck would be an immediate underwater draw for divers, while at the same time attracting fish, corals and other sea creatures and so relieving the pressure on Key West's natural reefs caused by diving, boating and fishing.
"Divers like wrecks, fish like wrecks. The Vandenberg will have a great profile underwater," said Sheri Lohr, a retired dive shop owner involved in the Vandenberg sinking project.
"The economy's going to benefit ... We expect dive shops to be out here within a few days," she told Reuters.
Before it was sunk, the Vandenberg was cleansed of contaminants, such as asbestos, wiring, paint and other potentially toxic substances and debris, to prevent it from damaging the ecology of the ocean floor in its new life.
Supporters of the artificial reef project hope the new underwater attraction can generate up to $8 million annually in tourism-related sales for Key West, as the wreck lures divers of all ages and skills to explore its hulk and infrastructure.
"The sinking of the Vandenberg is the best thing to happen in Key West in years ... it will definitely be a big help for the businesses on Duval Street (the city's main tourist boulevard)," said Key West City Commissioner and local businessman Mark Rossi.
Reefmakers, the Moorestown, New Jersey, company involved in the sinking has said most of the funding for the $6 million project is coming from Florida Keys government sources, including the region's tourism council. The U.S. Maritime Administration also is making a contribution.
In 2006, the U.S. Navy sunk the retired aircraft carrier Oriskany, an 888-foot (271-meter), 32,000-ton combat veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, off Pensacola in the Gulf of Mexico to make the world's largest intentionally created artificial reef.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jim Loney and Bill Trott